Stanley (Lawrence) Elkin 1930–
American novelist and short story writer.
Elkin's purpose in writing, aside from indulging his love of language, is to offer different perspectives on, and new significance to, the unremarkable. He combines conventional and avant-garde elements in his stories to provide a freshness of image, character, and situation, and to demonstrate the value and interdependence of the traditional and the contemporary. His humor shows the often tragicomic nature and effects of obsession.
Elkin's heroes are bachelors and orphans who have sacrificed traditional family and community life for personal success. Though isolated by choice, these men attempt to compensate for their loneliness by substituting the love of crowds for personal relationships. Elkin's heroes are all salesmen in some way, often in transit, searching for fulfillment. Whether the protagonist is the franchiser Ben Flesh, the entrepreneur Leo Feldman, or the radio announcer Dick Gibson, America becomes a vast sales territory where one Holiday Inn is interchangeable with every other. The result is a feeling of being at home everywhere but having no real home anywhere. Success for Elkin's characters can range from James Boswell's wryly humorous determination to be a professional acquaintance of the famous to George Mills's thought-provoking intention to rise above the traditional ordinariness of his forebears and do something well in his lifetime.
Stanley Elkin won the 1983 National Book Critics Circle Award for his novel George Mills (1982). Some critics have called it a "breakthrough" book because of its potential for enlarging Elkin's readership. The many writers and reviewers who have admired Elkin throughout his career have expressed satisfaction that he is finally receiving the attention and acclaim he has long deserved.
(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 6, 9, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 8; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980.)
Unlike his 18th-century namesake, the hero of this outrageous "modern comedy" [Boswell] is as undiscriminating in his admiration of great men as an autograph collector. His fate, he is told as a boy by an eminent psychologist (his first in-the-flesh celebrity), is to be a holder of coats, a sitter at the captain's table, a persona grata.
As a professional wrestler in a bout with The Angel of Death, Boswell suddenly realizes that everybody dies, and the knowledge propels him into a parasitic gluttony of the ego, a series of formless monomaniac adventures on a relentless search for VIP's, at whose feet he curls like a worshipful puppy. The world's richest man, history's first international revolutionist, a Nobel Prize-winning anthropologist, an Italian principessa—all these and others Boswell pursues even while he knows that the frailties of the great are as huge as the faculties that put them on top of the heap.
All of Boswell's mad frolics amount to very little, despite his inordinate tendency to philosophize, albeit tongue-in-cheekly, on the meaning of his bizarre existence. The novel becomes an over-long single joke, perhaps because most of us having adjusted to both our mediocrity and our approaching death in less frantic (and less interesting) ways than Boswell has, will find it impossible to project ourselves into the spot of a man admittedly so uncommon. "Do others feel their uniqueness as much as I do?" Boswell asks. No. "Mine is sometimes staggeringly oppressive," Agreed.
If Stanley Elkin ever dives into a subject more worthy of his talents, I hope that I am around to witness the splash. It should be a big one. For even as we detachedly read Boswell , it is clear that Elkin writes marvelously well. Humor explodes in bursts. Scenes...
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crackle with gusto and imaginative fertility, and his people pop off the page with overabundant flesh. A book less atypical, more human, and he'll be signing autographs himself.
Robert Maurer, "Shaggy Doggerel," in New York Herald Tribune (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), June 21, 1964, p. 16.
The fierceness in Stanley Elkin's Boswell is actually in some good part borrowed—not from James Boswell but from Saul Bellow. Mr. Elkin's character named Boswell speaks the wheeling, exuberant language of Augie March, and he has Augie March's penchant for metaphysical categories. Like Augie, too, he is submitted to a succession of tutelary "big personalities," and then he ends by asserting his own contrariety. Like Bellow's Henderson, Boswell is gigantic, ready to prove in the flesh the agonies of the spirit. The likenesses are unmistakable. And indeed Boswell—who like James Boswell is a collector of the great—in an instance invites Bellow to his wedding, along with Faulkner and Hemingway. It is a way of paying debts.
But despite dependency, and despite his cute trick in naming a character James Boswell, Elkin does have the talents of obsession…. The novel is credibly and cogently about Life and Death, nothing less. Elkin's Boswell goes roving among great men—rich men, geniuses, miracle performers, powers—with high spirits attuned to his despair, in desperate search for immortality…. Death is inevitable, but Life is better. The great thing, he decides halfway through, is to get as much as possible for one's death, to have one's history matter; by the time he is done he has discovered that the secret of greatness in life is the active, unreconstructed, insolent ego. There is something question-begging about both discoveries, to be sure, but Boswell in this comedy he plays out is an inventive man on the stretch, and his life is in him. (pp. 761-62)
Marcus Klein, "Fiction North and South," in The Kenyon Review (copyright 1964 by Kenyon College), Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Autumn, 1964, pp. 759-63.∗
I don't know if Searches and Seizures … is Stanley Elkin's best book, but I'll tell you one thing—it's terrific. I feel as if I should write this in capital letters. No. Not capitals, headlines, maybe: READ ALL BOOKS WRITTEN BY STANLEY ELKIN. That's a little pushy; but if you want to learn to embrace multitudes, or construct catalogues of the crazy, lists of the looney, read Elkin. You'll learn to see pimples on the earlobes of the enormous, and to occasionally try and write bad imitations of Elkin just to touch the totem of his vitality. Elkin's works are profound and filled with stuff and ideas and visions and all the stimulations that make a critic want to examine him in depth, but above all he is a first-rate writer, a man of deep, almost Shakespearean compassion for the life of the individual no matter who he/she is, and he has one of the best eyes for detail of anyone writing now. (p. 140)
His books are filled with sustained comic and serious metaphysical flights of rhetorical salesmanship on people, on crayons, on consumer products, on the look of a hairdo, on one man's range of moving experiences, on hard luck, on low places and dirty deals, on high places and "plenty of plentitude." And the extent of his observations is matched by the genuine vigor of his descriptions. His work is filled with lust, with hunger, with hot juices burning his brain to know more, to see more, to live. Can you imagine Walt Whitman, Henry James, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, and Woody Allen all pitching in?—Elkin is something like that.
Even when he contends with death, when he speculates on the future, when he examines the fuel that drives him, he doesn't think in terms of grand schemes and galactic dreams. He worries about all the details he hasn't seen…. Because Elkin's books have grown progressively more involved with wonder and mystery, they have continued, each in different ways, to grapple with death.
What is more important, for now, is to recognize that Elkin's love affair with life—in his novels—does not come out of political naiveté or faddish affirmation. It is wrung from a deep knowledge of human suffering given only to those who see in such detail that they are tortured into frantic searches and seizures…. It is hard to embrace a tortuous world. Few authors can look so closely at the texture of America and come away moved but still hungry for more. It is Elkin's great talent that when he sees plastic-motel America—consumer garbage, and piles of plenty, neon lips advertising the look of love, and all the detritus that most of us see and are repelled by—he also sees the human imagination, the human victims, the humans themselves standing somewhere behind the mess we all make. It can break your heart. But Elkin makes us embrace it all. (pp. 140-41)
The balance necessary for so close a look at contemporary life comes, in Elkin's books, from variations on his concept of style. On one level I mean that the energy of his rhetoric is not just manic; it is infectious…. In [another] sense, style has something to do with behavior. Everybody in Elkin's world seems to have some movie role in mind, but Elkin reveals these roles to us as a technique actor would reveal them—from accumulated outside detail that finally reaches inside. His best characters are not method actors—they are Olivier not Brando. But, the large supporting casts in his novels are often mediocre actors—types. We are given the set they work on, the costumes, the gestures, the clichés, grimaces, all the accumulated externals that shallow people mistake for inner personality or soul. Then we see them clearly: a mafia man who says softly, "it's Command Performanceville." We know how he looks, the gun under his camel coat, a businessman's look with only the minimum of lip movement. We have him. We've seen him in the movies, on TV—Mission Impossible. The Watergate Hearings, maybe. We really do see Elkin's characters everywhere, minor players, mostly letting their roles be thrust on them, never getting beyond the externals they imitate. They are Marcuse's one-dimensional humans, but to Elkin they are playing it the best they can.
On the other hand, Lawrence Olivier can play all the roles, and that is the secret of most of Elkin's manic heroes. They bear down on life by knowing all the roles, from outside in, from jargon to the edge of a breaking heart. Their energy comes from their drive to know all the movies, to shift roles as quickly as possible. They are acquainted with flux—who knows who'll come on stage next?—and they hunger for the challenge, for the knowledge…. Elkin's manic stars do, however, need strength. And, I'd like to talk for a moment about the evolution of style and its importance to his manic heroes, beginning with his first novel, Boswell…. (p. 142)
Boswell is literally a strong man, a weight lifter who turns his energy toward apprenticeship in role-playing. He is the most light-hearted of Elkin's manic heroes, but his range is terrific. He is a voyeur of everybody who plays their roles with gusto and style—the understudy for all the stars. He learns only from the best—"The Great," as he calls them. By the end of the book, the energy of his affirmation is still a strongman's energy. And so his major concern is: where does it end? how does he stop absorbing all the roles and expanding his ego? Feldman, in A Bad Man, solves this problem, and presents the very best of Elkin's manic heroes. He confronts both the plenitude of suffering and the plenitude of strength. It is a moving book. It made me understand two gut level lessons: 1. Add my suffering to the suffering of others and you don't have compassion, you have added suffering. 2. We are not made of glass. I believe this is part of the politics of balance. But, in Elkin's third novel, The Dick Gibson Show …, the major character, also an apprentice role-player who wants to be the radio announcer with the perfect voice, is no longer troubled by the ego. The problem now is bad news, bad news everywhere…. By the end of the book we have been flooded with the bad news of everyday, the sour stomachs of love, the bad breath of the hopeful, the empty venom of the mediocre—all the flotsam and jetsam of misery that echoes from those call-in, late night radio conversation shows. Again Elkin's range in misery is as impressive as his range in strength. But all that grief has its effect. Some balance is lost. Gibson himself hunts for a styleless style, hungering no longer for the extreme that leads to knowledge, but courting the ordinary.
I keep wondering, how tired is Gibson? how tired is Elkin? How long can style overcome misery? Perhaps the answer is encoded in the response of one of the bit players in this book: a man with a perfect memory for detail, a photographic memory, who can literally recite every figure in the carpet of any room he has casually walked through. He learns style from a woman who trains him to be a polished performer. They fall in love. But career and love life are interrupted because he grows very farsighted. Glasses or contact lenses would ruin his style. So he can no longer see the small details—he memorizes mountain ranges, and he keeps his show biz polish. But he loses love—and his audience. The Dick Gibson Show ends with the once strong manic hero stopped by detail, seeing suffering everywhere. Perhaps, like the man with the memory, Elkin has seen too far, counted too much on style to bring balance. In any case, the energy in The Dick Gibson Show has shifted; the minor characters play their suffering, foolish, ugly roles too well, and perhaps the style of the manic hero has its limits.
That brings us back to Searches and Seizures. It is a collection of three very fine novellas, and it presents some new explorations for Elkin. I believe he is examining the former givens of style itself. How is it connected to taste, to behavior, to attitude, and to action? The first story picks up the manic hero once again, The Bailbondsman, hungrier than ever for the gusto of knowledge, but tiring. Better than Gibson, but ready to admit, "I'm called on to make colorful conversation in my trade. Don't think I enjoy it. I'm a serious man; such patter is distasteful to me." But he does it well and although tired, he carries on to the end, both touched and touching, keeping the movie in motion. In the second story, Elkin departs somewhat, playing a little Henry James with The Making of Ashenden. Here, the hero is a man of exquisite taste on every level. Neither the most ardent leftist could fault his activism, nor could the moneyed-set fault his manners. He has style as balanced as the best of James' beautiful people. But when he meets the woman who is his match, he needs to purify himself of his discreet but nonetheless unvirginic past. So, of course, he goes into a wilderness that turns out to be like a series of art works … [and there] he lies down with a bear. Well, the rest is pure Elkin with a different style and the same wonderful embrace of life. Brewster Ashenden is purified, but while Faulkner might have loved the encounter, this is one he could never have written.
In the last novella, The Condominium, Elkin gives us another departure, a little bit of a Bellow-type character. I mean there is a little of that angst, a little of that lost diamond, scuffed by a bad old world. Here, style, place, and placidity are examined…. I believe Elkin is undergoing some change, and Searches and Seizures provides a great deal of provocation to understand his direction in depth. Read Elkin, please; he may come near breaking your heart, but you'll skip around too, right there in your office, on your rug—swinging and swaying right there as if you had hold of Melville's Catskill eagle, who "can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again." Because, even if you don't soar, you can certainly laugh. And you can wait till later to worry—like the hero of The Condominium, flying from the fifteenth floor—about "the hole I'm going to make when I hit that ground!" (pp. 142-44)
Raymond M. Olderman, "The Politics of Vitality," in fiction international (copyright © 1974 by Joe David Bellamy), No. 213, 1974, pp. 140-44.
All of Elkin's fictions grow from the interaction of the protagonist and his professional role. Professional concerns are the basis upon which the literary structure is built. The fictional structure is not, however, the linear or curvilinear path of the protagonist's career,… but rather the cluster of episodes which dramatize the development of the protagonist's character. Plot is secondary. (p. 198)
The hero's occupation is important stylistically as well as structurally. It is common enough for novelists to place stress upon their protagonists' profession, but it is an unusual aspect of Elkin's fiction that the profession is so often one bound up with spoken English. All of Elkin's heroes, whether they are in business or in entertainment, share a passion for speech-making. They oscillate between rhapsodic and rhetorical speechmaking, i.e., between speeches in which the speaker's love of literary elements, such as metaphoric patterns, becomes almost an end in itself and speeches in which literary devices are employed as a means of persuading the audience. Whenever the obsessed hero finds himself in rhapsodic ecstasy, he reminds himself of his need to communicate with others and thus to preserve himself from the isolation which threatens him. Once, however, he resumes his role as rhetorical speaker, he realizes that his speech, no matter how brilliant or persuasive it seems, is liable to fall upon deaf ears. The circle is completed when he withdraws again into rhapsody chiefly out of despair over his listeners' unreponsiveness. In self-conscious self-expression, he is both actor and audience. His progressive estrangement from the ordinary is mirrored in a linguistic shift from conventional to avant-garde modes of expression.
If Elkin's oscillation ended at the pole of rhapsody, if the circle closed in a kind of solipsism, his fiction would take on the darker tones of a writer like Samuel Beckett, whose comedy verges on tragic despair, but Elkin's heroes do not surrender to hopelessness. From the Boswell of his first novel to Ben Flesh in [The Franchiser], Elkin's protagonists tend to be stubborn believers in the possibility of communication. Some protagonists do give up the struggle, but most continue to speak and to argue that orphanhood is a fate we need not passively, wordlessly accept. (pp. 199-200)
Operating from a gesellschaftlich [modern society] base, Elkin's heroes find substitutes for lost gemeinschaftlich [traditional community] values compatible with their way of life. Their lack of roots in an organic community is symbolized by their literal or metaphorical orphanhood. Without families, his heroes are deprived of, or free from, the most important remnant of Gemeinschaft in the modern world. Besides this existential premise, their fate is also conditioned by urbane professions. Their life styles are based on a literal or metaphorical salesmanship. Through orphanhood and salesmanship they are marked as typical products of the modern Gesellschaft.
Critical of their own identity, they intuitively know what they lack—loving and lasting ties with family and friends. In their vain attempt to recapture values that vanished with the passing of traditional communities, they realize that they are deeply committed to modern society, i.e., to themselves as free individuals. They are, finally, unwilling to deny their orphan-and-salesman identity, difficult as it is.
Elkin's heroes are occupationally typical of modern society…. Because they are completely absorbed in their work, in their ambition to enhance their individual will in a mass society, they have lost the shelter of a community. (p. 201)
[In Elkin's novels] the heroes' conflict between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft is reflected by the contrast between their disappointed family life and their professional enthusiasm. Leo Feldman in A Bad Man … is in search for an absolute freedom of fixed relationships and a realization of his salesmanship…. [He] approaches the limits of his strength by having himself imprisoned in order to experience total isolation; he reviews his tense relationships with family, friends, and business partners; he fights the authoritarian power of the prison warden. Unwilling to play any ascribed role, only the role of his self-chosen profession, Feldman is inclined to overturn people's concepts of themselves and of himself by playing games in which roles are changed…. [Bad] man Leo sees more harm in the fixed, dull, lifeless, repressive relationships typical of a Gemeinschaft than in his competitive, provocative gambling. His salesmanship emphasizes such competition; he acts out his profession neither for profit nor for love but for the excitement of the unexpected, of feeling alive … and for the sake of intense communication. [He] repeatedly risks his life but is more conscious of the danger and more self-confident of his survival. (pp. 203-04)
[In The Dick Gibson Show] Dick Gibson's goal is pursued in comparative moderation. His broadcaster profession makes his interest in communication as prominent as Leo Feldman's investment in salesmanship. Yet, despite his work in a modern mass medium and his fight against authorities, he is in search of the ordinary, of family and love, perhaps all the more intensely. Paradoxically, radio, for all its modernity, seems to contain a potential for Gemeinschaft. Photographs of whole families united in front of the black box symbolize this to Dick Gibson. However, he distrusts the suggestive pictures and is not content with nostalgia. After a long apprenticeship, his discovery of an ideal format—the telephone talk show—finally furnishes him with an unprecedented, direct person-to-person radio contact with an invisible family of man. Radio, by definition a product of Gesellschaft, offers a satisfactory modern alterative to the conventional family. With his strong inclination toward the values of a Gemeinscahft, Dick Gibson, more than Leo Feldman, is prone to submit to the magic he is occasionally threatened by in his professional role—which in turn determines his identity. Like Leo Feldman, however, he consciously reveals the magic as a hoax. The two heroes resemble each other most in their respect for communication and their implicit and explicit belief in a family of man.
The three heroes of Searches and Seizures … exceed Feldman's dangerous trial of his gesellschaftlich behavior and Dick Gibson's more moderate vision of his public and private responsibility. They seek the extravagant and the fantastic. In the novellas, the pulls of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft amount to almost superhuman, stylized polar forces. Archetypal phenomena seem to loom beneath the surface of modern society. In this decadent civilization, the bailbondsman, capitalist, and intellectual each discover that they must play the roles that are expected of them. Rebelling, Alexander Main goes on a man hunt; Brewster Ashenden, instead of marrying a rich dying lady, rapes a bear; and Marshall Preminger chooses death over life at the condominium as the more fitting response to his disappointed dream of gemeinschaftlich shelter. (pp. 204-05)
[The Franchiser] synthesizes elements from many previous works but comes to a conclusion of its own. Another of Elkin's orphan-salesman heroes, Ben Flesh, surprisingly, is adopted and a profession is ascribed to him. Yet his "family ties" are artificial and his franchiser project is a compromise between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. From the beginning of his Finsberg heritage, his professional career is determined, his sales-man's freedom limited by family responsibility. The family of man Dick Gibson strives for and eventually achieves with the finding of the ideal radio format, Ben Flesh inherits. Through the Finsbergs and the franchises, the brotherhood of man and the homogenization of America seem accomplished. When the energy crisis strikes, however, Ben realizes that his project, his American dream, had been doomed from the start. His adoption had only been a first symptom. Although he lovingly fulfills his obligations to the dying Finsberg family by selling his franchises, he knows that he is, ultimately, alone with his true orphanhood and the [multiple sclerosis] that is his very own energy crisis. Yet he does not—like Marshall Preminger—commit suicide when he is deprived of the hope for human shelter. He prepares for death by investing—independently—in yet another franchise, the Travel Inn. A monument to his changed life and a final symbol of Gesellschaft, it sells shelter to the homeless traveler.
The franchiser, more than any other hero, has witnessed his realization of family and also its tragic disappearance. He is thrown back upon his orphanhood—the proper symbolic role for a Gesellschaft. Although his experiment with the ideals of a community has failed, he continues the search for these ideals within society, where they appear on a transformed scale…. [The] spirit of Gemeinschaft does indeed continue to survive even in the most modern of societies. For Elkin to have realized this at a time when numerous novelists have chosen rather to cry out bitterly against an allegedly absurd universe, is a remarkable achievement.
The specific nature of this achievement becomes even clearer when one realizes tt Elkin has staked out a claim to an aspect of modern society which most writers have shunned in horror: popular and consumer culture. While subject matter and style of the Metafictionist have become increasingly elitist and esoteric, while Black Humorists are so emotionally involved in popular and consumer culture that they oscillate between loathing and adoration, Elkin has managed to occupy a middle ground between disdainfully ignoring and uncritically celebrating the contemporary commonplace. Like recent painters working with the visual environment of popular culture—comic books, advertisements, films, newspapers and magazines—Elkin has exploited and illuminated the imaginative potential of institutions like Howard Johnson's and Holiday Inn. In his Whitmanesque catalogues of popular culture and its artifacts, he has achieved a poetic effect and discovered symbols appropriate to the age. By attaching aesthetic significance to phenomena which have been either scorned as subculture or mass culture or exalted as "the real America," Elkin has challenged contemporary clichés. (pp. 205-06)
Doris G. Bargen, in her The Fiction of Stanley Elkin (© Verlag Peter D. Lang GmbH, Frankfurt am Main 1980; a revision of a dissertation presented at the Universität Tübingen in 1978), Lang, 1979, 338 p.
The heroes (or antiheroes) of Stanley Elkin's novels have Anglo-Saxon names like Dick Gibson, James Boswell, and George Mills, but once they start to talk any traces of British reserve disappear. And how they love to talk! Once an Elkin character starts a spiel, in fact, there is no stopping him. Not that anyone would want to—the monologues, even those of the shaggy-dog variety, are ebullient, funny, and filled with insights about the sad intricacy of things in this "griefhouse" we inhabit.
Who is this compulsive storyteller, this Niagara of words? If you are not yet acquainted with him you are certainly not alone—Elkin has always been a writer's writer, admired by his fellow craftsmen but undiscovered, for the most part, by a wider public. This obscurity persists even though he has been steadily turning out stories and novels for 25 years…. Blending farce and pathos, comedy and disintegration, he contrives, in book after book, to pluck laughter from despair. And he does so in some of the richest prose being written today….
[The true hero of George Mills] is the English language. This is virtuoso writing, replete with verbal pyrotechnics, literary parodies and allusions, puns, calculated anachronisms, epic catalogues, and images as gorgeous as they are unexpected. When Elkin chose fiction as his medium the world lost a robust lyric poet; his language is fresh, quirky, original; his powers of invention seemingly inexhaustible. For all its air of improvisation, the book is written, and readers will want to move slowly through its more than 500 pages, savoring every rhetorical flourish.
A master of comic effects, Elkin is also our laureate of lamentation. Among the dominant motifs in his new book—as in the earlier work—are pain, isolation, missed opportunities, and the fear of death. "No one loved me enough, and I never had all the shrimp I could eat." The speaker, who typically undercuts her complaint with an ironic jest, is Judith Grazer, dying of cancer in a Mexican laetrile clinic. Elkin's female characters tend to be shadowy, but Judith is a complex woman who meets her fate in a moving manner. The Mexican scenes, written with dark humor, are terrifying. One senses that Elkin has stared death in the eye and somehow found a language to annotate the encounter.
Judith's chauffeur-confidant is George Mills, a man whose veins run with blue-collar blood, whose fate it is to be second fiddle, one of nature's born shipping clerks. Unlike those who inherit royal prerogatives, a millennium of Millses find themselves cursed to servitude, unable to break free of their class. In a dazzling opening chapter we meet the founder of the line, a stable boy who accompanies "a sissy sir" on a hilarious pilgrimage. We encounter other historical Georges along the way, but the book's central character, the 42nd incarnation, is our contemporary, a St. Louis Everyman. George Mills, who takes what comes and who learns to live with what grace he has, should become a household name—at least in households with books—in the tradition of Sancho Panza, Leopold Bloom, and Rabbit Angstrom.
I will not attempt a synopsis of George's peregrinations in this thickly textured work. Let me simply say there is enough narrative invention here for several novels, and that the book, which takes place over a thousand-year period and in a number of settings, can be approached in several ways. Among other things, it resembles a collection of stories, the chapters having their own beginnings, middles, and ends. (pp. 1, 11)
[His novel] is much more than a compendium of delectable phrases and cultural trivia. Elkin brings news … of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, of envy, poverty, love, bereavement, and fear, of the logistics of power and servitude, of faith and grace. The work, his strongest yet, will certainly evoke some smiles of recognition, and it will break some hearts too. It is the sort of rare novel one wants to read over and over….
[Elkin] is one of our essential voices, and he deserves the widest possible audience. In a press release, his publishers suggest that George Mills may finally be his "breakthrough" book and liken it to The World According to Garp. The comparison doesn't do Elkin justice. He belongs in the company not of John Irving but of our great serious comedians, of Singer and Roth and Bellow. He's that good. (p. 11)
Joel Conarroe, "Stanley Elkin's St. Louis Everyman," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1982, The Washington Post), October 10, 1982, pp. 1, 11.
Stanley Elkin once described his literary taste as delicatessen rather than haute cuisine. "It's that yen for the salami sandwich at the gourmet dinner … it is for the disheveled, what the cat dragged in, the rumpled in spirit," he wrote….
Elkin's taste, of course, is not as lowbrow as he claims. His greatest strength is the ability to combine high art and pop culture without shortchanging either one. His frequent subject is the regular guy with an all-American dream of making it big, but his sentences are often convoluted enough to give a Jamesian pause. This density of language may have kept Elkin off the best-seller list, but his natural audience is the one that appreciates John Irving and Kurt Vonnegut.
George Mills is not his most affecting book, and certainly not his funniest, but it is quintessential Elkin in style and substance. His five previous novels and two story collections not only capture Middle America; they embrace it…. Elkin deflates intellectual pretensions by recognizing that most people are perfectly comfortable in a fast-food world.
The Living End, Elkin's last novel, sets us up for George Mills. God puts in an appearance, and even he turns out to be a regular guy—part storyteller, part stand-up comic, part practical joker. George Mills takes this idea even further: it is about 1000 years of guys who are so ordinary they hand it down from father to son as a family tradition. From the first George Mills, servant to a nobleman during the Crusades, to the last, a working stiff in contemporary St. Louis, these are men who live under the curse of their "blue collar blood," pass on to their sons the story of this heritage, and always seem to be the butts of God's practical jokes.
Elkin focuses on the contemporary George and his upper-middle-class nobles and masters, intercutting George's story and the tales he has been raised on: those of his "Greatest Grandfather," of his own father, and of the 19th century English ancestor who landed in a Turkish harem. The novel is intricate, full of flashbacks, imagined conversations, and remembered family legends; it is also labored, brilliant in parts, and cumbersome as a whole. The historical sections often strain for laughs …; Elkin's real gift is for depicting the plastic-coated world of today. Overall, this work is less humorous than most of Elkin's, for the Millses are obsessed with their fated family history, and their curse of ordinariness denies them the vitality and even the aspirations of Dick Gibson and Ben Flesh.
Caryn James, "Stanley Elkin's Deli Delight" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1982), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVII, No. 43, October 26, 1982, p. 52.
The short and simple annals of the poor have often been the starting point for Stanley Elkin's wild, raunchy imagination. George Mills is no exception, but Elkin strains the rather plot-less framework of the novel by interpolating two long chapters that tell the stories of two historical George Millses: the first, who accompanies his noble master on the First Crusade and does some time in a Polish salt mine; and the forty-third, who (by chance) makes the acquaintance of King George IV and is sent on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople, where he happens into becoming a janissary and lives in a state of arrested horniness in the harem of Yildiz Palace. These two sections are not historical pastiche but contemporary Elkin, whether George Mills I is talking to his horse in the salt mine or George Mills XLIII is being fed a kosher lunch by the British ambassador to Constantinople. Both historical chapters stand well enough on their own to qualify as short stories, but as structural elements of the novel they seem as arbitrary and anomalous as flying buttresses tacked onto a split-level house.
Theoretically, the reader ought to care about George Mills: it's seldom enough that popular fiction turns to the working classes, and we ought to enjoy the opportunity for sympathy with the proles. In fact, Elkin spends his best energy not on his central character but on his digressions; George Mills, bland but observant, is a kind of Everyman-cum-Candide who visits whatever venue tickles his author's fancy. As a result, this overgrown, unpruned novel includes memorable, if erratic, sections on spiritualism and astral projection, King George IV's obsession with mother's milk, the protocol of the Ottoman court and of the American dance hall on Saturday night, the mores of the Mexican cancer clinic, and the dormitory-brothel of a medieval Polish salt mine.
Elkin's black humor generates some wicked portraits and throwaway scenes that would sustain another novelist for weeks…. (pp. 74-5)
Elkin has a special fondness for freaks, outsiders, and cheerful brutes; he is not without tenderness for the human condition, but even when he is being delicate he is grubbier, randier, more outré than most—a poet of orifices, a bathroom rhapsode. Readers of other Elkin novels will not be surprised to find that one of the most brilliant passages in George Mills describes how the world looks … when you've just had handfuls of horse dung shoved in your face.
George Mills is Stanley Elkin's ninth work of fiction. It is billed as his "breakthrough novel"—which may be a reference to the amount of time and territory it covers, though it is less outrageous than The Making of Ashenden, the amazing novella in which a man makes believable love to a Kamchatkan brown bear, and less humane than The Dick Gibson Show, whose hero wends his picaresque way through the radio stations of America in search of his identity. No one should expect a serious novelist—especially a madly inventive one like Stanley Elkin—to keep writing the same book, but George Mills is so often rambling and tiresome that the reader thinks wistfully of earlier, pre-"breakthrough" novels by this eccentric virtuoso. (p. 75)
Frances Taliaferro, "Lyricist of the Lunch Pail," in Harper's (copyright © 1982 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the November, 1982 issue by special permission), Vol. 265, No. 1590, November, 1982, pp. 74-5.
"George Mills" is a character and condition—"blue-collar blood"—beginning with an eleventh-century English stable boy pressed into the Crusades, reappearing in the early nineteenth century when George IV sends George Mills the forty-third as courier to a Turkish sultan, and ending, the line now defunct, with a middle-aged St. Louis furniture mover who, like the George Millses before him, listens to the hardships of the rich and searches for an audience to tell "the sad intricacy of things," all the protocols and sorrows his blood knows.
"Because I never found my audience"—that's the reason Stanley Elkin's God in The Living End gives for destroying the world. Ironically, this 1979 fable of an artist's final revenge became Elkin's most widely read work, bringing his other (and often better) novels back into print. Now in George Mills Elkin has written—like his extravagant God, like a whole P.E.N of gods—his most ambitious and best novel, but I'm afraid its wealth of tale-tellers and listeners, all squeezing their exchanges for some D.N.A. of voiceprint, may overwhelm an audience not already confirmed in Elkin excess.
All the world as occasion for words, situations devised to circumstance and celebrate the tongue: it's an ample notion, broad and generous and passionate but more hazardous for fiction than Tinker Creek for travel or jails for journalism, a method that has let Elkin's books fall through the crack of reputation between realists (Bellow, say) for whom words serve the world and experimentalists (say Barth) whose words construct a world. Perhaps not George Mills, for here Elkin cinches the circle of his practice tight: the energy and precision of his language make real, even necessary and instructive, its odd occasions.
The "range of the strange," as an earlier Elkin character put it, is unusual in this novel, even for Elkin: wholly fabricated and persuasive tales of medieval salt mines, Janissaries, and eunuchs, a blacksmith's bad luck in small-town Vermont, Astral Projection in Cassadaga, Florida, and in the book's present a travelogue of Mexican laetrile cures and a choreographed funeral. Performances nested in performances, the stories are frames and analogs for the final George Mills, childless at fifty-one, living with a bad back and a dumb wife in a white backwater of South St. Louis yet convinced he is "saved," not by religion but by his certainty that nothing will ever be expected of him. (p. 37)
The St. Louis that envelops George Mills is daytime TV, the domestic melodrama of upscale sex and moneyed disasters. The lives are imposed on Mills by a minor novelist named Cornell Messenger whose costume-jewelry salesman father, like Elkin's, "compelled his arias," made him feel "obliged to take the stand from the time he had first learned to talk, there to sing, turn state's evidence, endlessly offer testimony, information, confession, proofs." Between Messenger's gossip and his own remembered adventure, two kinds of experience and perhaps two kinds of contemporary fiction, George Mills steers with humane resources to his conclusion, rather haplessly stated, that the point of life is "to live long enough to find something out or to do something well." George Mills is no artist, but his novel is high art, transformed like all of Elkin's books and sentences from the merely curious and sunken ordinary.
Elkin invents emotion. He sets up for wit and delivers instead some of the most moving scenes in contemporary fiction. They cannot be retold, but the means are no less than Faulknerian: the oral posing of alternatives, suspending resolution, spreading language to every corner of possibility, more suspension—then the brief, clean release of feeling. Still America's magnifico of metaphor, as well as alliteration, Elkin also remains a very funny man, adept at crazed monologue, goofy dialogue, and the exhaustive series. In George Mills, though, Elkin has powered his routines beyond comedy and beyond pathos to the emotional clarity that comes when the writer no longer worries about amusing and prompting his audience.
"George Mills" is a name for compromise. The novel does not. George Mills is a wonderful, grief-ridden, resisting, and finally—for Elkin—a pure book. (pp. 37-8)
Thomas Le Clair, in a review of "George Mills," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1982 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 187, No. 3545, December 27, 1982, pp. 37-8.